On Thursday evening I attended the Fringe show Batmama at Intermedia Arts, and then Batmama herself—my friend Teresa Mock, who created and stars in that show—accompanied me to the Orpheum for a performance of the touring musical Wicked. “You know,” Teresa said as Wicked ended, “sometimes I see big musicals like this and think, they’re just doing something totally different than the kind of thing I’m doing. But with a show like this, it seems like we are doing basically the same thing.” She meant it as a compliment, and I agreed. You’re not going to wow anyone with a Fringe show’s sets, so for your show to fly you’ll need wit, heart, and committed performances. Wicked has those. It also happens to have flying monkeys and a giant dragon.
Batmama was an apt opener for Wicked, because both shows were inspired by the 19th century vaudeville tradition and the the power of wanting to believe. Batmama has Teresa, with the more-or-less willing assistance of a few collaborators, gleefully entertaining the audience in the person of a bat. Does Batmama actually believe she’s a bat? She certainly seems to, and why doubt her? Batmama and her friends have been on the road for so long that they seem to have forgotten where they end and their characters begin. I’m sure the cast of Wicked or any other touring musical could relate, and Wicked is based on The Wizard of Oz, a story where the central character is a simple man hiding behind smoke and mirrors, imposing and powerful only because his subjects want him to be.
Both Teresa and I were seeing Wicked for the first time, and as first-timers we may have been in the minority at the Orpheum. Having run continuously on Broadway since its opening in 2003, it’s already the 18th longest-running show in Broadway history and has spawned multiple blockbuster tours. The audience on Thursday night sounded more like they were attending a rock show than a musical; at their favorite moments, they positively screamed.
The musical, with book by Winnie Holzman and songs and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is based on a 1995 novel by Gregory Maguire that tells the story of The Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West, painting her as a misunderstood victim of anti-green discrimination and revealing a complicated relationship between Elphaba (the name Maguire gives the Wicked Witch, condensed from the name of Oz author L. Frank Baum) and the kind but privileged fairy Glinda.
It’s a clever premise, and the best of many good things about Wicked is its tight, inventive plot. We’re presented with lucidly sketched, empathetic characters who are led through situations that neatly fit both what we know and what we discover about the heroes and villains of Oz. The story gains steamroller momentum as the characters approach a destination we know via paths we don’t. It’s a nifty feat of plotting, and the musical production milks humor from the situation without sacrificing its characters’ emotional weight. It also manages to introduce an element of moral ambiguity while presenting conflicts and situations broad enough to play to the peanut gallery. It’s one of the smartest Broadway shows I’ve ever seen.
Like the best large-scale musicals, Wicked connects from top to bottom. The effects look great, and the steampunk production design by Eugene Lee and Susan Hilferty is rich and beautiful. When the green Elphaba and the pink Glinda come together onstage, the contrast snaps like a whip. The production could simply coast on its grade-A visuals and grade-A-plus story and still be above average, but director Joe Mantello also gives his performers space to work the kind of simple, human vaudeville magic that’s even more important to the show’s success. Appropriately underplaying her role, Vicki Noon as Elphaba stands as the sympathetic pivot point for the show’s complex plot. Wicked lobs one easy pitch after another at the actress playing the plum role of Glinda, and Natalie Daradich turns it into a one-woman home run derby. She has an entire vocabulary of simple gestures that are timed and performed so well that they’re as dazzling as the elaborate sets. There’s a moment where Daradich throws herself on the bed in a fit of pique, and the audience laughed hard—and kept laughing, and laughing, and laughing. I was laughing with them, and I can’t even really explain why. Sometimes something just works, and Wicked is full of touches like that.
Is the show perfect? No. Most conspicuously, Schwartz’s score is the musical equivalent of fat-free, sugar-free ice cream: there’s something there, but not really. Noon has million-dollar pipes, but her shows of vocal power would have vastly more impact if Schwartz’s songs built to them rather than simply cuing them. The show also has a political element, involving a kind of animal genocide, that seems stale and awkward. I have not read Maguire’s novel, but I understand it contains prominent political themes that have been toned down for the musical. They could have been toned down further.
Overall, though, Wicked is a real marvel, a tremendously satisfying theatrical experience. For regular Orpheum-goers, it’s an antidote to the lazy Wizard of Oz that came through town in March—a show that stomped the life out of the classic songs Harold Arlen wrote for the 1939 Oz film. I cited that production unfavorably in my review of the resourceful, gleefully inventive Fringe show The First Five Minutes Are Slow, and right on cue, here comes Wicked to show that the kind of energy and creativity that spark shows like First Five Minutes and Batmama can enliven big shows as well as small. You just have to click your heels and believe.